Commentary — November 19, 2010, 1:57 pm

Bob Hunter and Jeff Sharlet: An Exchange

The following letter was sent in response to Scott Horton’s interview with Jeff Sharlet, “Inside C Street: Six Questions for Jeff Sharlet.” Sharlet responds below.

To the Editor of Harper’s:

I am Bob Hunter and I am involved with the Fellowship, particularly in relation to Uganda. Mr. Sharlet mentions me in Scott Horton’s blog post “Inside C Street: Six Questions for Jeff Sharlet,” published on your web site on September 29, 2010. (I must point out that Harper’s claim that Mr. Sharlet studied C Street “from the inside,” is inaccurate. There are no interviews from there, unlike a New Yorker article recently published on this subject.)

There are problems in Mr. Sharlet’s responses to Questions 1–5, but I will here focus on his response to Question 6. Mr. Sharlet says he found out that the Fellowship’s fingerprints are on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill by asking me. He then says that, although I personally opposed the bill, I suffer from a “profound lack of accountability at every other level.”

What does Mr. Sharlet mean by that? Is my “profound lack of accountability” related to my working toward, and helping to achieve, peace in Uganda (and in Burundi and South Africa, I might add) by making friends across tribal and religious divides in each nation, but failing in Rwanda? Is it because I have not done enough to help the hurt and poor in Uganda (I wish I’d done more, but I did help found Friends of Mengo Hospital, which raised millions of dollars in aid; I did, with my wife, help save Nyapea Hospital from shutting down; my wife and I did raise the money to sustain over a hundred returned abducted child soldiers every year—abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda—and I do help Sister Rosemary, a CNN “Hero,” sustain over 400 returned abducted girls who were raped and came home with children but no childhood of their own or education to lean on)? Or did he mean my thirty years of pro-bono work as the leading consumer advocate on insurance abuses in the country lacked accountability because insurers usually won those fights?

When he first met me, Mr. Sharlet called me a “saint,” but now he says my fingerprints are on the awful bill that would kill homosexuals just for being who they are. I have opposed it with all my strength since I first learned of it after it was introduced in the Ugandan Parliament.

Mr. Sharlet must be making these grossly out-of-bounds remarks, and even worse remarks on his book tour, to sell books. What other reason could there be? No wonder he teaches a course at Dartmouth called “English 60.3, Evidence of Things Not Seen: Advanced Creative Nonfiction.”

Mr. Sharlet says that I refer to David Bahati, the author of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as a “member” of the Family. I have repeatedly told Mr. Sharlet that there are no members, only relationships, although sometimes the term is used colloquially. Mr. Bahati is part of a small group that meets in Uganda’s Parliament, one of many such groups meeting in legislatures around the world. These parliamentary groups are a small subset of the thousands of small groups meeting around the world, from leaders to prisoners, from the poor to the rich, from housewives to athletes, etc. Each group is autonomous and each group is, for its members, the most important group in the world.

Mr. Sharlet claims I told him that I had paid a visit to Mr. Bahati in Kampala to assure him that he remains in good standing despite my personal opposition to the bill. The meeting was not to tell Mr. Bahati that he was in “good standing,” whatever that means, it was to discuss my concerns with the bill. Indeed, on NPR’s Fresh Air episode of August 25, 2010, Mr. Sharlet says that, after he met with me, Mr. Bahati “was upset because he had come into a sort of a schism with the group.” Mr. Sharlet’s reporting on this subject is inconsistent, to put the best light on it.

Mr. Sharlet gives me credit for being vocal about my opposition to the bill, but claims that there’s somehow a “profound lack of accountability at every other level.” Mr. Sharlet knows that every American with any connection to Uganda for the Fellowship has condemned the bill. When Mr. Bahati first discussed the possibility of this bill, a close associate of the Fellowship told him it was a bad idea, making us the first group in the world to condemn the legislation since, under Mr. Sharlet’s approach of guilt by association, we must also have blessing by association.

As to accountability, consider Hillary Clinton. In his first book, The Family, Mr. Sharlet reported that Clinton was “a regular visitor to the Family’s C Street House in 2005” and that “under the spiritual tutelage of the Family, Hillary moved further rightward.” But although he is focused intently on the American Fellowship’s relationship with the awful Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill, he does not report what Secretary Clinton did regarding the bill. At the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, Secretary Clinton pointed out she had been at every such breakfast since 1993 (eighteen straight times!), including as First Lady, senator and secretary of state. She praised the impact of these events on bipartisanship, on the poor, on the spirit, on the world, and on herself. She spoke tenderly of her own small bipartisan prayer group of women who “prayed for me during some very challenging times.” As Mr. Sharlet knows, she was also in the Senate Prayer Group when she served there.

And then she told the audience and viewers on C-Span: “I recently called President Museveni, whom I have known through the prayer breakfast, and expressed the strongest concerns about a law being considered in the Parliament of Uganda.” This prompted President Obama, at the same Prayer Breakfast, to say: “We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are—whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.” President Museveni also has said that Secretary Clinton talked to him on the phone for forty-five minutes about “gays.” Since that time the horrific bill has not moved an inch in the Uganda Parliament, and, most observers say, it will likely die a slow, quiet death. I pray that that is true.

Mr. Sharlet says we do not hold people accountable but gives us no credit (indeed attacks us) when we unanimously condemn the bill and when leaders closely related to the Fellowship try to hold people accountable. This may sell books, but it is unfair.

According to Mr. Sharlet’s reporting in C Street, when Mr. Sharlet asked Mr. Bahati whether there was a connection between the “Fellowship here in Uganda” and the bill, Mr. Bahati said, “I do not know what you mean, ‘connection.’ There is no connection. They are the same thing. The bill is the Fellowship. It was our idea.” But in his response to question 6, Mr. Sharlet conveniently leaves out that it is the Uganda Fellowship that Mr. Bahati is speaking about, not the worldwide Fellowship. Mr. Sharlet goes on to further make the impression that Mr. Bahati means worldwide by immediately discussing things Mr. Bahati supposedly learned on the trip or trips Mr. Bahati made to the National Prayer Breakfast. To imply a worldwide guilt is to say that a little group of housewives I am aware of meeting together in Virginia is responsible for the bill as are business leaders meeting in India or parliamentarians meeting in Japan or Israel. It makes no sense. It is unethical journalism not to make clear that Mr. Bahati is talking only about a group in Kampala when he says, “The bill is the Fellowship.”

Mr. Sharlet says Mr. Bahati made multiple visits to the National Prayer Breakfast and to the Cedars, their Arlington headquarters. To my knowledge he only came to one (Mr. Bahati says two but I remember only seeing him at one) prayer breakfast as one of 4,000 guests. I do not recall his attending a meeting at the Cedars at all.

Mr. Sharlet says that Mr. Bahati brought the bill to a private meeting of international Family leaders before he introduced it and that Mr. Bahati received a “green light.” This is untrue. A close friend of the Fellowship from South Africa clearly spoke in opposition to the bill at that meeting. Tim Kreutter never talked to Mr. Bahati about homosexuality at all until the bill came out, and, as soon as Mr. Kreutter heard of it, he told Mr. Bahati he was not in agreement with it.

Mr. Sharlet says I was “trying to distance” myself from Mr. Bahati, when I told him that Mr. Bahati’s group of MPs wasn’t even Uganda’s most influential—the “power group,” as he put it, was the group that meets every Friday. That was not distancing myself at all. I told Mr. Sharlet in December 2009 that the small group of people who really matter in a country is not the group of political leaders but the friends “in the various groups that are working behind the scenes.”

Mr. Sharlet says, “Tim Kreutter, an American associated with the Family who lives in Uganda, has repeatedly said he neither supports nor condemns the bill. That’s not exactly speaking truth to power, but then, Kreutter doesn’t see that as his job.” Mr. Kreutter opposed the bill as soon as he knew of it and told Mr. Bahati so, as I mentioned earlier.

Mr. Sharlet calls Tim Kreutter “Bahati’s mentor.” In an email Mr. Kreutter told Mr. Sharlet: “I have never called myself David Bahati’s mentor as you are reporting. I do trust you as you told me that he apparently described me as that to you. But it is false to put it the other way around. And I told you that he would have said that in regard to the influence I have had in him not to hate Muslims and be inclusive of all faiths, etc. We never discussed the gay issue prior to when the whole uproar began. You acknowledged to me in an email that you understood this—but this is not the way you portray me.”

Mr. Sharlet says, “Kreutter builds up the power structures that make such dreams [killing all gays] possible.” This shocking claim is a lie. Tim Kreutter is one of the finest men in the world, a man who has given his entire life to helping poor children in Africa get a top-notch education. His work with street children and returned abducted children who were forced to be soldiers and sex-slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda is also testament to this man’s great love for kids. Mr. Kruetter’s educational models are being studied and replicated in many other countries, including in South America. Mr. Sharlet should be ashamed of himself for tarnishing a man who is a hero to everyone who knows him in Uganda and all over the world. Mr. Sharlet should publicly apologize to Mr. Kreutter. I suggest he do it right here.

Jeff Sharlet responds:

Since I’ve had my say in a very lengthy chapter on my reporting from and about Uganda—excerpted here in Harper’s—and in an additional feature for The Advocate, the oldest national gay news magazine, I’ll restrict myself to responding to Hunter’s accusations of inaccuracy and deliberate deception. Those wanting more detail can find it in my books (C Street and The Family) or in my reporting for the magazines mentioned above as well as in Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Salon, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show and NPR’s Fresh Air. Further detail is available in investigative reporting on related matters by, among others, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and, my favorite, World, a leading conservative Christian magazine that has done fine investigative work on C Street and the Family’s foreign affairs. I wax bibliographic only to make clear that evidence and arguments are widely available.

On to Hunter’s charges. I did not say that Hunter suffers from a “profound lack of accountability at every other level.” As is clear to any attentive reader of Scott Horton’s interview, I was referring to the rest of the organization, a case others and I have amply made in the forums named above. Hunter is right that I give him credit for opposing the bill. I’ve done more than that—I helped arrange appearances for him in two national media outlets so that he could express his opposition. My goal is clearly not demonization, since I’ve gone to great lengths to see that Hunter has had opportunities to express his perspective. Nor is it “guilt by association,” as Hunter charges. I’ve not argued that Hunter bears the guilt for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. David Bahati, its author, does.
That’s why I didn’t say Hunter’s fingerprints are on the bill. I did agree with Horton that the Family’s fingerprints were on the bill. David Bahati, the bill’s author, is the secretary and de facto leader of a weekly meeting of Ugandan legislators who understand themselves to be part of the Family and who take inspiration from American visitors from the Family such as Senator Jim Inhofe, our own Congress’s ranking homophobe. Bahati and Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Nsaba Buturo, the chairman of the weekly meeting, describe the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as an important achievement of that group. That’s not guilt by association. That’s the guilt of a self-declared, recognized member of the Family who persuasively attributes much of his political success and his religious and political thinking to that organization.

It’s worth repeating the terms of the bill, the most draconian in the world: death for “serial offenders”; life imprisonment for a single gay encounter; seven years in prison for promotion of homosexuality; three years for failing to turn in gay friends or relatives. I’m glad that Inhofe has tepidly denounced the bill, though it’s worth noting that he did so only after weeks of refusing comment and facing subsequent media pressure. The Family, meanwhile, did not object when The New Yorker gave the impression that the bill was no longer a threat. It most surely is.

This does not add up to guilt on Hunter’s part. That’s simply not my argument. My argument is that the Family helped create and financially support an unaccountable political institution, the Ugandan Fellowship, that favored a “leadership led by God” over transparent democracy, and then supplied it with a theology of “Jesus plus nothing”—with Jesus defined as a strongman—and extended to Africa the long shadow of American culture war issues that by the account of all sides in Uganda had not been present there much before the previous decade. Would homophobia have gripped Uganda so tightly without the influence of the Family? That’s impossible to say; there are too many other factors involved (many of which I discuss elsewhere). Would Bahati be where he is without the Family? Bahati doesn’t think so. Well, that’s not quite right. Following the teachings of the Family, Bahati believes God used the voters to place him in power and then moved him, an otherwise undistinguished legislator, on to the international stage. “God uses instruments to make his purposes be fulfilled,” Bahati told me during one of our many interviews. “He uses voters.” Or, as David Coe, a leader of the Family puts it, “we elect our leaders, Jesus elects His.”

Hunter says I write and discuss the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to “sell books.” I can think of more commercial topics than Uganda, but, like any author, I’d like the book to be read. As for my courses at Dartmouth, I don’t quite follow the connection. I’m missing the irony Hunter finds in the title, “Evidence of Things Not Seen.” Is Hunter unfamiliar with the famous New Testament verse, Paul’s description of faith in Hebrews 11:1, which I’ve used for a class on writing about belief and doubt?

Hunter disputes Bahati’s description of their meeting in Kampala as one of friendship. Fair enough. For the record, Bahati believes that Hunter had come to him in Kampala to “mend fences,” after offending Bahati by declaring that Bahati had not been invited to the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, the Family’s annual public event in Washington. Bahati said he was, as he had been in past years (the years 2007 and 2009, according to Bahati, but Hunter only remembers the time he arranged housing for his Ugandan guest).

As to whether Bahati “supposedly” or actually learned things during his visits to the American Family, all I can say is that I was reporting on Bahati’s view, not trying to evaluate his performance for a report card. Bahati’s view is that the value of the Family to him is “to know that you have leaders who trust in God. And you are a part of a global movement like that, that family, that global family. You can travel from here to Ukraine and know you have a brother or a sister.”

Hunter says that I “do not report what Secretary Clinton did regarding the bill” at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, the first to face protests from human rights groups. In fact, I’ve reported it many times, in many interviews. But it is true that in the context of this six question interview I did not manage to cover everything. For instance, I left out the fact that Senator Inhofe travels to Uganda representing the Family and its private religious views on the taxpayer’s dime. I apologize on both points.

As for Tim Kreutter’s refusal to condemn the bill, the Harper’s fact-checker and I offered Kreutter a rare opportunity to change his position, since we wanted to be absolutely certain not to misrepresent his view on such an important matter. He continued to decline to condemn the bill.

When I asked Bahati whether Kreutter, of whom Bahati is very fond, expressed opposition at any point, he said, “I think Tim Kreutter has not—he’s director—he hasn’t told me it is good or bad, but he has been sharing with me what other people are saying in the U.S.” I’ll gladly grant that what Bahati interpreted as neutral may have been meant by Kreutter, a quiet man, as criticism. But his refusal to condemn the bill is louder than any words.

My argument that Kreutter, by developing a network of schools and an elite “Leadership Academy” designed to train the next generation of Uganda’s professional and political in a faith that emphasizes ministry to the powerful rather than ministry with the oppressed, has helped build a power structure that supports Bahati—who calls Kreutter his mentor—is in the end, just that: an argument, not a lie. My argument is that by lending support to the Ugandan Parliament Fellowship group that created the bill (the American Family, meanwhile, has pumped millions of dollars into Kreutter’s project), by facilitating frequent visits by men such as Inhofe, and by encouraging a leadership led by God—whose will is to be determined in small meetings of the powerful—Kreutter has inadvertently contributed to a culture of profound oppression, one that he reinforces for the next generation of leaders by sharing with them research (including “The Complex Interaction of Genes and Environment: A Model for Homosexuality”) that presents homosexuality as a disease in need of a cure. That he has done good works as well was not the subject of my reporting (nor could it have been, since Kreutter would allow neither me nor a Ugandan colleague to go beyond his office). My subject was the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the influences that shaped it.

As I write this, that bill is nearing passage. In fact, rather than writing this, I’d like to be transcribing my most recent interview with Bahati, of November 11, 2010, when he informed me that he’d been given assurances by parliamentary leaders that the bill was the next item on the agenda of the committee in which it’s been stalled. Independent sources, speaking to Christian conservative journalist Warren Throckmorton, a fierce opponent of the bill, have reported that action on the bill is approaching. These sources say it may be a matter of weeks; Bahati predicts early January. He says the death penalty will likely not make it through Parliament, as a result of international pressure following media reports, but that the other provisions should be mostly intact. Then again, the death penalty may not be necessary, judging from the Ugandan newspapers’ recent practice or running so-called “kill lists” of “top homos” for elimination.

Hunter has often quoted me, a little out of context, calling him a “saint.” (I was responding to his recitation of his good works.) Time now to prove it. He has written at least half a dozen lengthy denunciations of me. I believe Hunter when he says he opposes the bill. The question is whether he opposes it more than he does my reporting.

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